published Friday, September 6th, 2013

Choosing childless: Child-free couples say they made the choice that's right for them

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    A swing set sits empty at Riverview Park in Chattanooga, Tenn. Some married couples are choosing not to have children.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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Shelli Eberle loves kids β€” other people's.

The 31-year-old assistant principal of a Knoxville elementary school says she and her husband of five years, former Chattanoogan Marsh Eberle, also 31, have chosen a child-free marriage.

"I think being a teacher/administrator has definitely influenced my decision to not have children," Shelli Eberle says. "I've always said, 'I love kids, and I love to send them home.' My job brings me great joy, but I can't imagine managing 800 students all day, then going home and being a patient mom to kids of my own. I know lots of amazing parents do this every day, but I just don't see myself doing that."

It was a choice the Eberles don't regret, but it's one they've had to defend, she says.

"People call us crazy. Everyone's 'happy' looks different," Shelli Eberle says. "I always thought I wanted kids growing up and even during college. I just figured that was something you had to do -- part of being a good Southern woman/wife. But looking back, I realized that I have a passion for kids, but that doesn't necessarily mean I have to have my own."

The Eberles are one of an increasing number of couples going childless in America.

The birthrate in the United States is the lowest in recorded American history. From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there's data, the fertility rate declined 9 percent, according to a report in Time magazine. Part of that decline, the magazine says, can be attributed to the Great Recession, when people chose not to have children simply because they couldn't afford them.

But the trend goes further back than that. A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about one in five American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with one in 10 in the 1970s.

The reasons for the decline are multiple. Unlike the agrarian economy of the early 20th century, today's society is mainly situated in cities, where the need for big families to help with farming duties vanishes.

In addition, with the advent of easily available birth control, women were able to manage their childbearing and, as more women moved into the workforce, many chose to reduce the number of babies they had. According to Pew Research, "there has been a general trend toward delayed marriage and childbearing, especially among highly educated women. Given that the chance of a successful pregnancy declines with age, some women who hope to have children never will, despite the rise in fertility treatments that facilitate pregnancy."

And raising a child is costly. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, it will cost an estimated $241,080 for a middle-income couple to raise a child born last year for 18 years, an increase of 3 percent from 2011. And that does not include the cost of college. "I would say that $241,000 might be a modest prediction," Shelli says. "We have talked about the amount of money it takes to raise a child. Honestly, we hope we will be able to retire earlier by investing this money we are saving wisely. Kids are expensive. I don't know how people do it."

But there's a divide as to whether the trend toward fewer children is good or bad for society as a whole. In a 2009 Pew poll, 38 percent of respondents said it's bad. Still, a higher number -- 46 percent -- said it makes no difference one way or the other, Pew reported.

Jonathan V. Last, author of "What to Expect When No One's Expecting," says that a "childfree lifestyle is rational and understandable."

"I don't scold the child-free. Instead, I tend to validate their suspicions," he told on Britain's Weekly Standard magazine. "Our problem, from an economic point of view, is the yawning chasm between our fertility aspirations and the families we actually achieve. The average American wants 2.5 kids, but winds up with 1.9 kids. What's the cause of this disconnect? A whole constellation of factors, including skyrocketing college costs, the rise of divorce and cohabitation, the breakdown of marriage, and stagnant middle-class wages, just to start."

When Ed and Britta Rusk, of Harrison, married 22 years ago, they, too, decided to go childless.

"I knew before I got married that I didn't want kids. It was a firm decision," says Britta, 45, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. "When we went to premarital counseling, our pastor skipped over the whole chapter on children/child rearing."

Britta says she didn't want to bring a child in today's troubled world.

"I don't want the challenge of raising a child up in the conditions of the world today -- alcohol, drugs, crime, terrorism, abuses, political situations, etc.," she says. "Second, I am selfish with my time and financial resources."

Her husband's reasons are more personal.

"I didn't want to have kids because I wanted to break the cycle of abuse and addiction in which I was raised," says Ed, 48, an accountant. "I didn't want to risk raising kids and then pass things on to them that they had no control over."

Shellie Eberle acknowledges that selfishness is a factor in their decision to not have a child.

"First of all, we are selfish," she says. "We like to go out to eat when we want, take trips, and basically do whatever we want. We are both extremely independent people. We are always doing things we love to do whether we do them together, with friends, or on our own.

"Marsh loves to hunt and fish. I play adult league soccer and teach dance after school. We both love spending time on the lake. Of course, we could do these things with children, but we don't have to have children to make us feel complete. Some people need that, we just don't."

But many people, including her husband, thought she would change her mind as she aged, she says.

"He figured that the urge would set in to have kids as I got older, but he never pressured me either way," she says. "We have the same views on it, though. There has never been a push or pull from either of us on this subject. We are definitely on the same page."

North Georgia resident Vicki Carroll Altman, 60, supports couples' decisions to not have children, even though she has and has always craved a big family

"I have six wonderful children and 13 grandchildren and I love them all," she says. "And that is what I wanted -- a big family. I think siblings teach you about dealing with the world long before you are out there in it. But what is wrong with no children?

"I think it is wonderful that people today can decide to have or to not have (children) without being looked down on for their decision," she says. "Too many people are here today because a couple had to have children to be 'normal.' I wanted and was blessed with a large family but do not think parenting is for everyone."

Not everyone is so open-minded.

"For about a year after Marsh and I got married, everyone was asking the baby question. I honestly couldn't stand hearing it," Shelli Eberle says. "I have no desire whatsoever. Everyone said, 'When you turn 30, you'll have to have one.' Well, I'm approaching 32 and I'm still as confident in our decision as ever. My parents and family are very supportive of our decision. They want us to be happy, and they love and support us with or without grandbabies. My brother has two precious boys, so that takes a little pressure off."

Marsh, a terminal operator, says he's not surprised that Shelli Eberle hasn't changed her mind about having children.

"She's around them all week," he says. "We usually talk and laugh about it later after we run into people we haven't seen in a while, and they seem to always ask. It's interesting how many people with kids think about it a second and then say, 'I love mine and wouldn't trade them for anything, but I don't blame you.' "

Marsh's mom, Johnna Bell, of Chattanooga, stands behind her son and daughter-in-law.

"I think it's their decision, and I respect that," she says.

Britta Rusk says her family has never pushed her to have children.

"It could be because I have three siblings, and they have children," she says. "It also could be that my parents know I am stubborn and really nothing changes my mind so no reason to try to change it.

"It's interesting, every time I tell my mom that Ed and I are going on vacation or traveling the world she always pauses and says, 'Oh yeah, that's right, you don't have any kids.' For me, life is easier and more carefree."

While there have been some people who question -- caustically -- the Rusks' decision to not have kids, most have been supportive.

"Most readily agree with my decision and support it 100 percent," she says. "Others confide in me that they wish they had made the same decision 'even though they love their kids.' There have only been a couple of acquaintances that have really given me a hard time about it."

Ed Rusk says that, though there have been times when he thought he had missed something by not having kids, he knows they made the right decision for them. But that doesn't mean they erase children entirely from their lives, he insists. They give scholarships to students enrolled in private Christian schools, which involves them in the lives of many children.

"I received a lot of help to graduate from a private Christian school and felt that when we were able to, I should do the same thing," he says. "Even though we don't have kids of our own, we have helped kids along the way in their quest for a Christian education. You can say we have our own kids, via scholarships."

The Eberles, who are godparents to several children, appreciate the children that are in their lives.

"We absolutely love having our friends' and families' kids over to play. Aunt Shelli Eberle and Uncle Marsh are pretty awesome," she says. "But when it's all said and done, we are content and satisfied with the life we have together.

"Will I never have kids? I'll never say never. You just don't know what life holds. I may turn 35 and have to have a baby. I don't see it happening, but anything is possible. I would be much more likely to adopt or foster though. There are so many kids who need good homes. I see that every single day in my job. I think I would feel guilty bringing a baby into this world when there are so many that are already here that need love."

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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